Rejuvenating the 11 market towns in his patch is a priority for the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer. 

The market towns, an integral part of the local combined authority’s industrial strategy, now stand to share in a £13m fund designed to help each of them put their growth master plans into action. Here, the Mayor tells us more …

I recently joined a group of partners to ‘switch on’ public access WiFi in St Neots, the latest in a raft of market towns within our Combined Authority area to get the free service.   One of my top priorities for Cambridgeshire, indeed one of the top ambitions for East Anglia, and for the whole country, is to see everybody connected, both by ultrafast broadband and by seamless mobile coverage, into a modern way of communicating, learning, and doing business.

Covid-19, with its paralyzing lockdowns and uncertainty, with the disruption to life and livelihood it causes, is further proof that digital connectivity is a key driver of social and economic development, and never more so than in St Neots and market towns like it.  From mediaeval days, these historic hubs have formed the backbone of Cambridgeshire, of East Anglia and of the country itself but many have lost out over time as businesses and young people have opted for a future in the city.

But a third of the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough population lives in market towns, with nearly as many again living in surrounding areas. And although cities are the big beasts, there’s a growing understanding that both industry and successive governments have failed to explore the enormous opportunity market towns offer.

When Covid-19 struck, market towns were already facing many pressures, from lack of investment, poor transport links, the decline of their high streets, the ageing of their populations, to the reduction of in-town employment that led to more outward commuting.

This is where Combined Authorities can come in and make a real difference. Made up of key county, city and district councils, and, in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s case, backed by a strong local enterprise partnership, our Business Board, Combined Authorities can pinpoint local infrastructure need, secure funding from various sources, and then help push the work through.

Market towns are now squarely on the government’s radar, with initiatives like the future High Streets Fund. And rightly so. Many of my priorities are those designed to  benefit market towns and redress decades of under-investment  – like getting Wisbech reconnected to the rail network, building a new railway station at Soham, unblocking the bottleneck junction at Ely so that passengers and freight can move more freely through East Anglia and beyond – including to and from Felixstowe port.

 And on the roads, I’m working to get the A47 dualled from Peterborough to Norwich, to fix up the A10, and commissioning CAM – the Cambridgeshire Autonomous Metro – to link many communities into a smooth transport system, connecting homes to jobs and unlocking retail and leisure activity for consumers in a way not seen before.

And through all my plans runs the red thread of connectivity – whether road, rail or digital. Free wifi in town centres is just one part of a broad spectrum of measures we’re funding or championing, all designed to help market towns get back on the map.

Get back in the market

This November, I hope that the Combined Authority I lead will agree the second tranche of bids from Cambridgeshire’s eleven market towns for a share of the £13 million we’ve allocated to help these unique communities get to grips with the impact of Covid and build the future they want.

And that brings me back to St Neots. The Combined Authority is investing in digital connectivity because secure internet access an important part to play in supporting struggling high streets. It will help bolster economic recovery from Covid-19 by encouraging people to shop nearby, not just online, but it is more wide-reaching than that.

Far more. Covid-19 has shown us that many businesses can work anywhere, provided they have reliable connections, and that many workers can work from home. In a strange quirk, it is possible that the ‘new normal’ of Covid may actually help unlock the potential of market towns, even as it puts cities under stress.

There’s already a feeling that some of the flight-to-the-city impulse is being reversed with many people rethinking how they live and work. Home working has become not just possible but practical and sometimes preferable. Businesses are questioning whether they need to pay city rates, or whether a move to a green and pleasant town could work for them, with fresh air, active travel,  and good schools, along with better value business premises and more spacious homes.

The first lockdown taught us many things, not least that trade doesn’t begin and end in the big stores and in the big cities, or even online. Far from it.  Trade happens in every corner shop and local business, wherever people can make or buy and sell goods and services in any form.  And while many city businesses suffered sorely during the first lockdown, local traders in market towns found support from their community and a customer loyalty that grew.

We know that Covid-19 is expected to produce lasting changes in behaviour – less use of public transport, altered shopping and socialising patterns, more home and agile working, and greater appetite for digital connectivity and mobile coverage. In the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, we’ve doubled the market town funding on offer to help them adapt – to help them create new cycleways and footpaths for ‘active travel’ and respond to the changed use of community and commercial space.

My vision is for the future prosperity and success of every market town in the county and helping make this a reality by investing in them as vibrant economic and social hubs which attract new types of business.  Online shopping may have strangled the old-style high street, but digital connectivity will help create the new one, and with it, a whole new breed of market town.

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